Taken together, the marriage of biology and silicon and the shift from species-based to individualized therapy will change the face of medicine forever. Traditional human efforts to treat disease are being empowered with digital tools that annotate life with silicon technology. The enormous material effort to find symptoms is being replaced by a combined genetic and artificial intelligence that knows where to look and how to find problems before we do. In the new medical paradigm, disease will be diagnosed before it is made fully manifest. Highly targeted drugs will be used to intervene before organs are ravaged or tissue is destroyed.
This new ability to diagnose and treat certain diseases early, from infectious agents like hepatitis C to degenerative ailments such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, may obviate the need for the types of tissue, organ, or stem cell therapies that often attract the most public attention. In the future, a supercomputer sitting in an air-conditioned room will work day and night, crunching billions of bits of information to design new drugs. The drug discovery machine will never need to rest or ask for higher pension payments. It will shape how we use the abundance of genomic information that we are uncovering and will be the deciding factor for the success of medicine in an age of digitally driven research.
Of course, there are reasons to question whether this new medical revolution will come to pass, and there are many things that could go wrong: Regulatory procedures need to keep pace with technological change and government agencies need to create frameworks for evaluating drugs that look and behave differently than previous medicines. Many parts of this new technology still need to be validated in the clinical setting.
But if one had to guess where the future of medicine really lies, it is in DNA chips, supercomputers, and new drugs, not embryo research, tissue transplants, or stem cells. It is time for our public debate to pay more attention to this fact, since a medical and technological revolution of this significance is sure to have lasting political, economic, and social consequences.
Credits: Scott Gottleib, "The Future of Medical Technology," The New Atlantis, Number 1, Spring 2003, pp. 79-87.